‘Jagannathah svami nayana-patha-gami bhavatu me’
(May it be so that Lord Jagannath be the object of my vision.)
The temple town of Puri in the state of Odisha, which is also known as the ‘Sreekhetra’ turns into a sea of humanity, as people from every corner of the world gather to catch a glimpse of the Holy Trinity on the ‘Ratha’ or the chariots; breaking down all barriers of caste, creed, and religion. Amidst the hymns and chants, drumbeats and the shrill sound of the conch, performances by various groups of artistes to please the Lord and gatherings of millions of devotees seeking blessing from the divine, the chariots start their journey. Ratha Jatra is also known by other names, such as ‘Gundicha Jatra’, ‘Ghosa Jatra’, ‘Navadina Jatra’, ‘Dasavatara Jatra’, etc. It celebrates the annual journey of Lord Balabhadra, Maa Subhadra, Mahaprabhu Jagannath, Lord Sudarshan, and many other Deities of the shrine to the ‘Gundicha’ temple.
The concept of the chariot has been explained in the ‘Kathopanishada’. The lines from the Kathopanishada that narrate the importance of the chariot are- ‘Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha’. This means, the body is the Chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to control the mind and thoughts. The Rig Veda to speaks of the hymn itself being the chariot that reaches the gods and is also the vehicle of sacrifice that brings gods to humans (Rig Veda II.18.1).
Ratha Jatra is the grandest festival of the supreme divinity who is believed to have manifested himself in the Kali Yuga to emancipate humanity and to relieve them from their sufferings. This is portrayed in the hymn- ‘Rathe tu vamanam drishtwa punarjanmam na vidyate’ which means that the glimpse of the Vamana, the dwarf form, an incarnation of Lord Jagannath ensures emancipation and releases everyone from the cycle of birth and death.
The various rituals and the celebration of the grand Ratha Jatra or the car festival are-
Akhaya Trutiya is celebrated in the Hindu calendar as the birth of Sage Parashurama. On this day the construction work of the three chariots begins. The chariot construction work is carried out by seven groups of carpenters and artisans as per the tradition and lineage. A special group of ‘Dasapalla’ carpenters has the hereditary right for the construction of the chariots for the Holy trinity.
This day is very auspicious and it is believed that any work that is started on this day turns out to be successful.
This ceremony is held on, ‘Jyesthapurnima’ when the holy trinity along with the Sudarsana are taken out in a procession from the temple premises and are placed on an elevated platform for bathing. After that, each idol is bathed with 108 pitchers of ritually purified water drawn from a sacred well inside the temple premises of the Goddess, ‘Sitala’ accompanied by chants and hymns. Then the deities are adorned with Elephant masks, and this is known as the ‘Ganesha Vesha’. Afterwards, they are offered Bhoga (Cooked Food) and Aarti.
This occasion is followed by, ‘Anasara’, or the period of sickness. It is believed that the deities fall sick after taking bath and thus take rest for the next fifteen days. During this period the ‘Darshan’ (viewing) of the deities is said to be prohibited. No one other than ‘Pati Mahapatra’ (the special medical servant of the temple) has the right to serve the Deities during the period of ‘Anasara’. The deities are treated with herbal medicines and are given simple diet that includes fruits and sweets.
Lord Jagannath never disappoints his devotees. Thus, during the period of ‘Anasara’, it is believed that lord shows his glimpse in the unique idol of ‘Alarnath’. ‘Anasara’ is the period when the shrine of Lord Alarnath at Bramhagiri gets crowded with devotees.
This ceremony is conducted after 15 days of ‘Anasara’ just before the Deities get ready for the grand ‘Ratha Jatra’. After taking rest during the period of ‘Anasara’, the deities are rejuvenated and come back afresh. This is also the time when their idols get painted, and the Deities are fully restored to their youth which is called as ‘Nabajaubana’. This is followed by, ‘Netrotsava’ which is performed in the inner shrine where the eyes of the Deities are painted by their respected Priests and the worship commences in the temple.
The Ratha Jatra or the car festival is celebrated on ‘Asadha Shukla Paksha Dwitiya’ in the ‘Asadha’ month which commemorates the grand journey of the Holy Trinity from their abode to the Gundicha Temple. For this journey, Enormous and beautifully crafted Chariots are lined up at the front of the ‘Singha Dwara’ or the Lion’s Gate, which faces the north side of the temple.
The auspicious day of Ratha Jatra starts with Mangala Aarti, Abakasa (Dental Floss) and by offering Deities with Khechudi and Pitha Bhoga as breakfast because the Deities should not feel hungry in between their journey. This ceremony is followed by the ‘Pahandi Jatra’.
PahandiJatra marks the start of the journey of the Deities. They are taken in a huge procession from the temple to their respective chariots. In a customary ritual manner, first the ‘Sudarshana’ is brought from the temple. Lord Balabhadra being the eldest in the family is placed first in his chariot. He is then followed by Goddess Subhadra and then Lord Jagannath acquiring their places in their respective chariots. It is very difficult to carry the idols of the holy trinity, especially those of Lord Balabhadra and Lord Jagannath. Even though hundreds of Daitapatis (Lord Jagannath’s special servants) and other servitors sweat out and drain all the energy in their bodies, it is believed that the Lords move only at their wish. At the 7 steps of the temple or the ‘Sata Pahacha’, Lord Balabhadra and Lord Jagannath wear the special headgear called ‘Tahiya’ while Maa Subhadra and Sudarshana wear a crown made of ‘duba’ grass. These special ‘Tahiya’ headgears are made by the craftsmen from the monastery named ‘Ragabhadas Matha’.
It is not that anyone carries the Lord to the chariot; it is believed that Jagannath himself carries everyone on the path of salvation during this journey.
Before the grand chariots start to roll, the king of Puri, Gajapati Maharaj takes the charge of a sweeper and sweeps the street in front of the three chariots with a golden handled whisk broom-stick, a practice which is called ‘Chera Pahanra’. As per popular belief, this practice began after the erstwhile Gajapati of Puri decided to sweep the chariot and the floor so that he could qualify to marry the queen of Gundicha, another devotee of Lord Jagannath who belonged to a lower caste. This ceremony breaks down the societal hierarchical order and brings everyone together at the same level in front of the Lord. In front of Jagannath, no one is a king or a beggar, of higher caste or of a lower caste; all are equal and are his beloved devotees.
The grand journey of the Ratha Jatra thus begins after the ceremony of Chera Pahanra. Lord Balabhadra’s chariot starts to roll first which is followed by Maa Subhadra’s. Mahaprabhu Jagannath’s chariot is the last one to start the Journey. Millions of Devotees assemble at the ‘Bada Danda’ to pull the three chariots. They believe that pulling the chariots frees them from the sins that they have committed unknowingly. Even the touch of the sacred rope which is called ‘Ratha Daudi’ that is used to pull the chariots of the Deities is considered as pious.
The chariot of Lord Balabhadra is known as ‘Taladhwaja’ or ‘Langaaladhwaja’. It is decorated with cloth of red and bluish-green colors and is guarded by ‘Basudev’. The charioteer is ‘Matali’ and the flag is called ‘Unnani’.
The grand chariot of Maa Subhadra is named as ‘Darpadalana’ Or ‘Debadalana’. It is covered in red and black colored cloth and is guarded by ‘JayaDurga’. Her charioteer is ‘Arjuna’ and the flag is known as ‘Nadambika’.
The chariot of Mahaprabhu Lord Jagannath is known as ‘Nandighosa’ or ‘Garudadhwaja’ or ‘Kapiladhwaja’. It is decorated with red and yellow cloth and is guarded by ‘Garuda’. The name of the charioteer is ‘Daruka’ and the flag is named ‘Trailokya Mohini’.
While the chariots of Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra reach directly at the Gundicha temple, the chariot of Lord Jagannath stops at his Mausima (Aunt’s) temple where he is offered Poda Pitha (baked cheesecake). After a short pause, the chariot of Lord Jagannath resumes its journey again but usually reaches the Gundicha Temple the next day. As per the legend, Lord Jagannath waits for his Muslim devotee, ‘Bhakta Salabega’ who was late and prayed to the Lord to stay put until he reached the Bada Danda.
After reaching the Gundicha Temple the Deities take rest on their chariots for another day. After that they are taken inside the Gundicha Temple where the rituals followed are almost the same as in their temple.
The ‘Ratha Jatra’ is celebrated for nine days. On the 10th day, Deities are brought back on to their respective Chariots and the chariots are pulled back to the main shrine which is known as the ‘Bahuda Jatra’. During the return journey, Lord Jagannath stops again at the ‘Mausima’ temple to relish his favorite ‘Poda Pitha’ Bhoga. After reaching the main shrine, the holy Trinity spends the night in the Chariots. Bahuda Jatra is followed by ‘Suna Besa’.
On this auspicious day, the Deities are adorned with gold ornaments and golden crowns, which is why this ceremony is named as Suna Besa (the golden attire). Not just that, arms and feet made of pure gold are also attached to the Deities. Devotees get mesmerized watching the glittering holy trinity on the chariots. After the ceremony, these traditional golden jewelry are taken back to the temple.
The ceremony of ‘Suna Bhesa’ is followed by ‘Adhara Pana’ which is a ceremonial drink that is offered to the Deities as Bhog.
The ‘Niladri Vijay’ where the Holy Trinity finally returns to their abode. As usual, first Lord Balabhadra comes inside the temple, followed by Maa Subhadra and finally Lord Jagannath in a traditional procession amidst the huge crowd of the devotees. For Lord Jagannath, entering inside the temple is not easy as he has to appease his angry wife, Goddess Laksmi. It is believed that Goddess Laksmi is upset with Lord Jagannath for leaving her alone and going out with his siblings. Lord Jagannath has to persuade his wife by luring her with many presents just to get the entry into the shrine, which brings an end to this grand annual festival.
One of the reasons that keep this age-old festival perennially young and significant even today are the very humane folklores associated with this festival and with Lord Jagannath. Through this festival, God himself walks out of his abode to meet his people breaking the barrier of religion, caste, and creed. This is the occasion when any person belonging to any religion who is in love with the holy trinity can come to meet them.
Lord Jagannath broke down the chains of religious differences when he waited for his Muslim devotee, ‘Salabega’ to reach him on the day of Ratha Jatra. Even today this practice is followed and the chariot of Lord Jagannath waits exactly at the same spot to pay tribute to his beloved devotee. As per another legend, he even went to receive coconut as offering from, ‘Dasia Bauri’ a devotee said to belong to a lower caste, rejecting the casteist society and its orthodox regressive practice of untouchability which were highly prevalent at that period of time. As per the customs, when the King of Puri sweeps the street in front of the chariot he imparts the importance of equality in the society. The body color of Deities – Lord Jagannath being black in color, Lord Balabhadra being white and Maa Subhadra being yellow in color- breaks down discrimination based on skin colors in the society. The rituals are humane and progressive, which makes this festival so vital and widely accepted.
After the apex court of India has given a nod to the celebration of the Ratha Jatra amidst the pandemic but under certain strict regulations, a wave of happiness and relief has spread throughout the state of Odisha. Though millions of his devotees throughout the world will not be able to visit the Lord this time, however, they are happy that the age-old tradition has at least not been stopped, and they can catch a glimpse of the divine through their television sets sitting safely at home. He is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. He is the god of his devotees and if his devotees cannot visit him, he will make sure to visit them all.
As written in Odia Bhagabat, ‘Kari Karau thau tuhi, To binu Anya Gati nahi’ which means that everything happens at his wish. The same notion has also been described in the sacred Gita that says, ‘In this universe, the dispositions of nature perform all works. But deluded by egoism man thinks he is the doer.’ It is believed that not even a single blade of grass moves without the will of the divinity.
Let us therefore accept this as his decision. The entire world is in the clutches of the pandemic. If the almighty wishes us to worship them sitting at our home, then we will obey their will.